When all else fails, blame the women. It’s the oldest trick in the book. And after Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of two charges, including third-degree rape, at his sexual assault trial, his lawyer, Donna Rotunno, has fallen back on this tried and tested technique of blaming the female victims in an interview with Sky News last night.
Let’s start with the fact that we have a woman, one who calls herself a feminist, representing one of the most prolific sexual predators in modern times. Using a woman to defend a man accused of sexual misconduct is often seen as a ‘trump’ card. It subtly casts doubt on the accusers, because surely a woman wouldn’t defend a man who was a sexual abuser? It implies that we live in a post-feminist world where the ‘sensible’ women are getting on with things and giving men a fair hearing, while the hysterical, over-sensitive feminazis are making a fuss about nothing. And, of course, it offers an attractive catfight narrative that conveniently distracts from the real issues. Nevertheless, what really matters here isn’t Rotunno’s gender, but her extraordinarily damaging arguments, which threaten to turn back the clock on our public attitudes towards sexual violence.
The women who have accused Weinstein of assault, Rotunno claims, were “guilty of a lot of things” because they sent Weinstein pleasant messages. Weinstein’s accusers, she says, “were guilty of making Harvey Weinstein do things, making him believe that they wanted to be with him”. So really, isn’t he the real victim here?
Except that the notion that this man, accused of abuse by over 90 women, was somehow simply a little confused, is absurd. We know there was a massive power imbalance between Weinstein and his accusers. We know that he had the power to cripple their careers if they objected or angered him. We know it was a power he is said to have wielded to devastating effect against actors like Mira Sorvino and Ashley Judd. And it is well documented that coercion and fear can cause sexual violence survivors to feel enormous pressure subsequently to placate their attackers.
We should be “concerned” about the state of the justice system, Rotunno argues, because Weinstein has been found guilty based on what she describes as “mountains of doubt and very little evidence”. We’re now in a situation where “a woman can say anything she wants and they’re going to be believed”.
Given that Weinstein was acquitted of three further charges at his trial, that blanket acceptance of every accusation clearly isn’t the case, In fact, we live in a world where exactly the opposite is true: where women fight tooth and nail to have their voices heard and their stories told, only to be shamed, dismissed and disbelieved. It sounds utterly ridiculous to claim that we are in a terrifying, man-hating, post-feminist world where any man accused of sexual violence is automatically found guilty, when less than 1% of rapes in the United States result in a felony conviction and rape prosecutions in the UK stand at a 10 year low.
We are now living in a post-#MeToo society, according to Rotunno, where men “have no power any more” and there is an assumption that all men are bad and all women are good.
Except that perhaps the most powerful man in the world trails a string of dozens of sexual misconduct allegations in his wake. Except that you can openly boast about grabbing women “by the pussy” and go on to become the President of the United States. Except that, like Roman Polanski, you can plead guilty to statutory rape and go on to be regaled with international awards and accolades. Except for all that.
Rotunno says she herself, hasn’t experienced sexual assault, because she hasn’t put herself in ‘that situation’ implying that women, have some control over whether or not they are sexually assaulted because we have “choice in [the] circumstances in which we put ourselves”.
Every shred of available evidence refutes this claim. And decades of telling women to wear longer skirts, to stay out of the shadows, not to go out at night alone, have done nothing to curb rates of sexual violence. Because a rapist is not a stranger in a dark alleyway who can be conveniently ‘avoided’. Over 80% of rapists are already known to their victims, meaning that they are not monsters hiding in the dark, but husbands, colleagues, acquaintances and friends. Just like Weinstein, who was a hugely respected professional contact for the women whose trust he abused and bodies he violated. And a woman should be able to do her job without fear of being raped.
Weinstein should be shown mercy, his legal team has argued, to take into account his already “historic fall from grace”. They say he should have a short sentence because of his “remarkable accomplishments” in the world of film.
Which doesn’t sound like justice at all. We have spent centuries allowing powerful men’s accomplishments and contributions to hold greater weight than the lives and bodies and devastation of the women they have brutalised. It’s time to start valuing and listening to women instead of blaming them. Maybe, just maybe, after Weinstein’s conviction, the oldest trick in the book isn’t working so well any more.
Laura Bates is the founder of Everyday Sexism . Her book, Men Who Hate Women, will be published in May 2020.